Under the Frying Pan, a Big Fire:
Systemic Safety Problems at CNY Nuclear Plant

by Tim Judson

There is a major safety problem at the FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego County, New York. Entergy Nuclear operates the reactor, on the shore of Lake Ontario, 30 miles north of Syracuse. Last November, Entergy fired Carl Patrickson, an engineer at FitzPatrick since 1989, who had reported a problem to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Entergy’s retaliation against Patrickson reveals that, while the problem he reported is major, it is only the tip of a big iceberg.

In April 2003 Patrickson reported a problem with the Emergency Service Water (ESW) Pump rooms. The ESW and Residual Heat Removal (RHR) pumps in those rooms provide backup cooling for the reactor when the main cooling pumps fail. Patrickson discovered that the basement rooms that house the ESW, RHR, and other pumps lack sufficient ventilation to keep them cool if there were a fire in the building.

Possible China Syndrome

According to a 1991 report the New York Power Authority (NYPA) submitted to the NRC, the lack of ventilation could cause the pumps to overheat within 10 minutes, leaving operators with no other source of cooling water to shut FitzPatrick down safely. Cutting through the nuclear jargon, Patrickson calls this a “China Syndrome-type situation,” referring to the 1979 movie about a nuclear plant that narrowly avoids a meltdown. (Reality proved even worse: just 11 days after the movie’s release, there was a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, PA.)

NYPA committed to fix the problem at FitzPatrick in 1991-2, then received permission from the NRC to postpone the work until 1993-4 when it planned to shut the reactor down for refueling. NYPA expected the modifications to take up to 18 months. NRC never followed up to ensure the changes were made, and Patrickson discovered in 1997 that they never had been. Although he reported this to the NRC with a number of other neglected safety issues, the NRC simply took NYPA’s word that the problem was resolved.

When Entergy took over FitzPatrick in November 2000, company officials encouraged workers to report safety problems, instituting the “Code of Entegrity” that required workers to report problems or face disciplinary action. Patrickson began alerting his superiors to workplace and nuclear safety problems. When he realized that management wasn’t addressing problems, he reported them, as required by the Code of Entegrity. His department manager criticized him for taking time away from his other responsibilities to do this.

Reporting to OSHA

In January 2003, as a final recourse, Patrickson reported a number of workplace safety violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The week that plant managers received a citation notice from OSHA for the violations, they ordered Patrickson to take “for-cause” drug and psychiatric tests and suspended him from work. Although both sets of tests were clear and within days the company psychiatrist declared him fit for duty, management did not lift his suspension and allow him to return to work for a month.

Soon after his return Patrickson was put on probation and had to enter a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). PIPs is Entergy’s work performance program supposedly aimed at providing workers on probation with supervision and guidance to get better at their jobs. In practice, its purpose seems to be to keep workers in line and provide a paper trail for removing “problem” employees like Patrickson or pressuring workers to accept early retirement or severance packages.

When workers are on probation, they receive no pay raises or increases in their pension plan benefits. Payroll is typically the largest expense at a nuclear plant because of the high number of workers. Having a significant portion of the workforce on probation helps the nuclear industry cut costs. If those workers take early retirement or severance packages – or just quit – the strategy is even more profitable.

Patrickson questions the integrity of Entergy’s system. “While I was at FitzPatrick, it seemed to me that an excessive number of employees were on PIPs,” he says. “I would estimate that 10%-15% of the FitzPatrick workforce was on administrative probation and in the PIPs program. I only know of one person who has been released from PIPs once he was on it.”

Probation as Retaliation

Last fall, Patrickson filed a complaint with the US Department of Labor, alleging that Entergy retaliated against him for his nuclear whistleblower activities by placing him on probation and harassing him through PIPs. In January, he amended the complaint to include his termination in November. The Energy Reorganization Act specifically prohibits retaliating against workers for allegations about nuclear safety issues.

At Patrickson’s federal hearing on April 28 in Syracuse, one of his coworkers testified that he had been on PIPs for two years and has found it impossible to get off probation. Each time he met the performance objectives set by his supervisor, the supervisor would change them, making it impossible to complete the plan. Substantiating the arbitrary nature of the system, another coworker from the same department testified that he had an unsatisfactory evaluation the same year as Patrickson but was not placed on probation.

By late 2003, Entergy was in the process of cutting back the workforce at its five Northeast reactors by nearly 400. PIPs and Entergy’s use of probation to cut costs and facilitate workforce reductions may now be common in corporate America. However, the consequences reach far beyond issues of workers’ rights and fair labor standards. The pressure for nuclear plant workers to conform and not “rock the boat” fosters a dangerous culture of silence and unaddressed safety problems.

Patrickson believes his experience has sent a strong message to FitzPatrick workers. “You don’t even have to look at my firing to find a ‘chilling effect,’ he says. “My 31-day suspension caused enough of a chilled atmosphere. When I showed my Whistle Blower letter to another engineer following my return to duty, he said he won’t be writing any more ‘Condition Reports’ due to my suspension in April.

“Two Engineers told me that my firing added to the chilled atmosphere,” he continues. “I was pulled at about 8 am, waltzed down to Human Resources to fill out termination papers, then supervised as I boxed up my office. I was paraded past the office cubicles, one box in my arms, three others carried out by the HR Manager, an assistant, and my Supervisor. If Entergy wanted, they could have canned me quietly. They could even have waited until the end of a workweek. But they chose to do it at 8 am on a Thursday, an hour into the workday, when everyone on the day shift had arrived and were at their desks. Talk about ‘sending a message.’”

If Patrickson’s claims are true, then the chilled work atmosphere at FitzPatrick – and possibly other Entergy reactors – is a systemic source of safety problems. One thing is clear: Entergy is not about to fix any of this on its own. If FitzPatrick has to shut down for even six months to resolve the ESW Pump Room problem, it could mean huge financial losses. And in the Enron era profits come first.